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Do you believe in miracles? Britain's Willis is the early talk of Wimbledon

by: Nina Pantic | June 27, 2016

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Coming into this match, the world No. 772 had only $292 in ATP earnings this season. (AP)

LONDON—The All England Club is the perfect place for dreams to come true, though it’s rarely—if ever—at this magnitude. If you’ve missed this Cinderella (or Prince-rella) tale, meet Great Britain’s Marcus Willis.

The world No. 772 grabbed hold of a last-minute opening for a pre-qualifying tournament, which he won for a spot in the Wimbledon qualifying draw.

Three wins later he found himself in the main draw, bewildered. And then he just kept on going. On Monday, he took out Ricardas Berankis in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, with his friends singing along throughout and Willis literally dancing along at times.

“I’m just enjoying my tennis,” Willis said. “It’s a bit surreal. I might as well enjoy it.”

Berankis is ranked a staggering 718 spots ahead of Willis. 

“I'm playing very, very good tennis,” Willis said. “I’ve got to understand it's not going to be like this every week.  The reality of the tour, it's brutal, it's cutthroat … I want to be a Top 100 tennis player. I want this week in and week out.  It's going to take a lot of hard work and I've got a lot of improving to do as well.”

The Brit spent the better part of his preparation for this week juggling his job as a teaching pro at The Warwick Boat Club and training for the very slim shot of playing at Wimbledon. He coaches players of all ages, from toddlers to seniors, and insists he’ll keep doing it.

“I like a lot of different variation in my life,” he said. “Different scenery. Keeps me grounded.  I'm going to continue to do that.”

He’s the 22nd-highest ranked British player in the ATP rankings, far beyond anyone’s radar, but now he’s finding himself in the spotlight as a homegrown hero.

It was three years ago that Willis was rediscovering his motivation, in danger of leaving the game. 

“I was a bit of a loser,” he admitted. “I was overweight. I was [drinking] pints. I was just a loser. I don't know. I just looked myself in the mirror [and] said, ‘You're better than this.’ ... My coach worked very, very hard with me.  Surbiton were lovely, gave me free courts to train in the winter.  [There were] a lot of main people. My family, my close friends got behind me.  It's key. You can't do this alone. 

"It's a very lonely sport. You need people around you.”

Willis had a taste of success after that, rising as high as No. 221 in 2014. But last year, injuries forced him back down again.

“Six months to a year ago, yeah, not very confident, to be honest,” Willis said. “Kept getting injured.  Tore my hamstring twice.  Hurt my knee earlier this year. Had a bit of a rough phase. I was down, struggling to get out of bed in the morning.”

It was also last year that he considered relocating to Philadelphia for a coaching job.

“I met a girl,” he said. “She told me not to, so I didn’t. Do what I’m told.”

His girlfriend, Jennifer Bate, certainly deserves some credit for keeping the 6’3” lefty inspired to keep plugging away.

Affording to play has also been a significant hurdle for Willis, as it is for most players ranked outside the Top 100. That’s all about to change, and now he might be able to afford an apartment of his own.

“I’m still living with my parents,” he said. “Living the dream.”

Willis is guaranteed $66,000 with his run at SW19. Until this week, his best performance this year was a quarterfinal run at an International Tennis Federaton Pro Circuit event in Tunisia, which earned him $292. He’s had just $95,129 in career earnings to show for nearly a decade of hard work.

The dream is only getting more surreal. Willis takes on seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer next on Centre Court.

“I was very intrigued by his story,” Federer said after beating Guido Pella in the first round. “I think it’s exactly what our sport need sometimes. These guys coming from nowhere. We tend to have a very hard time producing those kinds of players. [Tennis] is just so tough…”

If anyone knows how tough the sport can be, it’s Willis. But now he’s just basking in the moment, and keeping it simple.

“I get to play on a stadium court,” Willis said. “This is what I dreamed of when I was younger. I’m going to go out there and try to win the tennis match. I probably won’t. I might not. But I'm going to give everything, as I have the last seven matches.” 

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